Convergence in social processes: it is a challenge, is it a solution?

Development of society brings new, more and more complex, challenges. It seems that this reached the point where solutions that enabled breakthroughs in economy, technology and social development in the past now seem to be obstacles. Fragmentation, more than any. Namely, specialization in performing certain functions in society had an important impact on development of society. E.g. specialization in production operations was a breakthrough in development of industry. Observed more broadly, specialization in different areas of life used to bring better results. Establishing entities in charge of teaching, regulating, researching, and producing contributed to improvement of quality of life of individuals and to development of the society. They focused, more and more over time, on their tasks, thus building specialized capacity but also increasing the distance from other social entities and processes. E.g. universities teach, factories produce, and so on. They became very good at what they are doing. However, with time, it seems the focus shifted from the purpose and initial function of certain entity to the existence of the entity itself. So, nowadays, we often hear opinions that the problem is „silo“, i.e. each stakeholder is performing their specific tasks, fulfilling their specific function in social life as they see it, while interactions and consequentially levels of understanding problems and cooperation in the society becomes lower than needed for new breakthroughs. Is this good for future steps in social development? Or it is necessary to bring closer stakeholders that currently do their work mostly separately?

Convergence is already happening in different areas. E.g. in media, where division between printed and electronic ones, and then between electronic audio and visual ones, was clearly defined, while now we have different contents joined in online channels, so we can read, listen and watch the content from the same communication channel. Not only that, but technology also enabled consumers to become producers of content, so now we have not only contents prepared by professional journalists, but also by citizens that take an active role in reporting on social events. Is this a pattern that will spread through other areas of society? It is hard to say to which extent this will go, but it is already happening in different areas of social development. Universities are making endeavors to get closer to industries, adjusting curricula and intensifying research activities to meet demands of changing industries. Enterprises are investing more and more in research and development, participating more intensively in learning processes conducted by educational institutions. State institutions are making efforts to improve approaches and interventions enabling development of economy and increase level of quality of life.

If this social convergence, based on focusing on results rather than on existence and characteristics of different entities in society, is already recognized as something desirable and useful and if it is happening already, is this a subject to think about at all? The thing is, even in developed societies, i.e. in developed states, these processes are still facing many challenges, such as hesitation of different stakeholders to cooperate, being unable to see long term benefits and even necessity of such cooperation, trying to keep their independence and identity rather than bringing their structures closer to other stakeholders and thus involving more strongly in social development in different areas. In less developed countries, it is, of course, much worse, in regard to networking and cooperation, where risks are often on top of the list of decision making criteria, where low level of trust is preventing cooperation, and lack of resources is an obstacle for initiatives that are agreed on.

Also, there are numerous challenges in uniting social forces to enable next steps in social development. Some structures, functions and processes emerge. However, the old ones are quite resilient, seeing these changes not as development, but as jeopardy for their existence. But it is not about their existence. They can, of course, exist in future, but with changes and adjustments required by new development challenges. After all, they have already changed and evolved, no one is the same as some years ago. Therefore, strengthening trust, networking and cooperation seem to be the right way to join forces of social stakeholders from different areas, such as technology, education, industry and regulatory institutions, to enable the next step in social development. It brings the focus back on results and effects, not on existence and benefits of individual stakeholders. In fact, in the long run, this seems to be the best for the individual interests, too, because developed countries, where quality of life is high, achieved that to a great extent thanks to cooperation processes that are still recognized as a priority for further development. This approach enables joining resources and better prioritization on the level of society. Bringing together universities and companies, government and citizens, simply gives better results in social development. After all, societies came into existence on the ground that every individual can achieve much higher quality of life in comparison to existing in isolation. Specialization, as we mostly know it, seems to have served the purpose. It created capable entities that are good in performing specific tasks. Now they have to join forces and converge processes to enable further development in different areas of social life. With everyone doing what they do best, working more and more closely with different stakeholders in society, changing and adapting over time to new conditions and development requirements. That is what society is all about, isn’t it?

How strong innovation systems affect strategic and operational planning

Modern society is characterized by rapid changes in different areas of life. Different stakeholders are investing efforts to manage processes of changes, to achieve development and benefits for the individual stakeholders and consequentially for the society. There are also efforts to harmonize and coordinate activities of different stakeholders to achieve the best results on the level of society. However, it is not easy. Therefore, plans are being prepared and implemented, with monitoring and evaluation, lessons learned and proposed adjustments. This points out that strategies and their implementation is considered important, taking into account that preparation of a strategy, as a specific plan, requires significant resources and that strategies are often prepared in various areas. At the same time, development requires ever new solutions and innovations are more and more often considered one of key, if not the most important, factors in development. This brings to questions about relations between strategies and innovations, how to plan interventions that foster innovations and what are specific aspects of such plans and their implementation.

The word strategy comes from military area and includes high-level goals and plans to achieve these goals, both resulting from strategic planning processes, while tactics is focused on engaging resources to achieve these goals on operational level. Innovation system, innovations ecosystem or national innovation system, whatever term is used and whatever level is observed, is a concept focusing on interactions among companies, education and research institutions/organizations and other stakeholders in introducing innovations.

In conditions of dynamic changes and more and more complex interactions in society, defining strategic goals is an extremely difficult task, since it focuses resources on certain areas thus bringing also risk of missing opportunities for achievements in other areas, so that it may or may not bring desired effects. There are different approaches applied in preparation of strategic plans, that include different analyses in introductory phases, different levels of participation of various stakeholders, and different structure of strategic documents. One of key differences is in the structure of strategic documents, i.e. how deep in details it goes in defining how strategic goals will be achieved. Some strategic documents give strategic goals and broad, but still precisely enough defined, directions, while other develop detailed operational plan, with interventions, resources, allocation of responsibilities and other details, including monitoring and evaluation mechanisms. Both, strategic goals and broad directions and operational details are needed for achieving the change. So, why is the structure of documents different?

Recently, I have participated in the study visit to Germany, Berlin area, where we had an opportunity to get acquainted with SME support mechanisms, in different areas. My impression was that state-level institutions define strategic goals and directions towards them, which are ambitiously and precisely defined (e.g. https://www.bmwi.de/Redaktion/EN/Publikationen/aktionsprogramm-zukunft-mittelstand.pdf?__blob=publicationFile&v=7 emphasizing importance of innovation networks or https://www.de.digital/DIGITAL/Redaktion/EN/Publikation/digital-strategy-2025.pdf?__blob=publicationFile&v=9 ), but operational planning, i.e. developing interventions that will ensure reaching these goals is left to other stakeholders, such as enterprises, educational and research institutions. Even programs that initiate movement towards desired goals, financially supported and monitored by the government, are administered by transparently selected and contracted private agencies. Documents on level of federal states contain more details (e.g. https://digitalesbb.de/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/190529_Broschüre_A4_Gesamtstrategie_web.pdf ), but still do not go into all details, such as identification of responsible stakeholders for implementation, financial values and sources of funding. So, higher levels of authorities define what to do, and other stakeholders provide ideas how to do it. On the other hand, strategic documents in BiH often contain detailed operational part, as defined by methodologies such as Standardized Methodology for Strategic Planning and Managing SME Development. Methodologies also suggest that strategic planning process should be followed by establishing structures and procedures for implementation. So, the strategic document not only defines what to achieve, but also how to do it.

What is the reason for this difference? Like in the military, commanders who have well-trained and equipped units have the luxury, so to speak, to define task and rely on lower levels of command for tactical application in the field (an approach well-known for a long time, applied by, for instance, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder). So, one of the reasons may be in availability of capacities and interactions. Namely, Germany has well-developed innovation system, with strong individual capacities of stakeholders and with developed interactions, both of which they are further developing. So, government can count on the innovation system to create solutions to reach defined strategic goals. They also have financial resources to support development processes identified as priorities. On the other hand, less developed countries do not have so well-developed innovation systems, neither from the point of view of individual capacities of stakeholders, that are often lacking resources, nor from the point of view of interactions. Therefore, stakeholders who develop strategic plan, in order to increase probability that it will be implemented and thus create desired change in reality, define all details they can, with precise descriptions and allocation of tasks and responsibilities. It is understandable, since it is less likely that concepts will come from stakeholders that still lack resources and from the environment with underdeveloped interactions. This approach may be necessary steppingstone in development of underdeveloped countries and their approach to innovations, since a number of interventions in strategies is focused exactly on developing capacities and interactions, thus creating conditions to engage wider circles of stakeholders in developing solutions for achieving strategic goals. This way, less developed countries are creating conditions for applying similar approach to the one currently applied by developed countries, thus enabling creative potentials of many to contribute to future development processes in economy and in social development in general.

Problem defines tools, not vice versa

Planning in conditions of rapid and often unpredictable changes

There are periods of time, such as the one we are living in, when changes are present in many areas – economy, technology, education, etc. Changes are influential, rapid and quite often very difficult, if not impossible, to foresee. In such circumstances, questions occur about possibilities and limitations of planning of development processes – is it needed, possible, how to do it. Exploring these subjects, one may come across different opinions – that it is not needed at all, that it is needed but impossible, that it is needed and possible but that it requires new tools and methods. Especially, there are many discussions on methods, arguing which is better, even opinions that certain method is almost perfect and universally applicable.

So, in practice, what helps and what doesn’t?

Planning is needed, there are hardly any dilemmas about that. Even activities we undertake in everyday life, the smallest ones in terms of time and resources, require a plan, where a plan may be just an idea of what we want and how to achieve this. Going from point A to point B already includes several things important for planning:

  • we need to move from point A, so there is a reason for change,
  • we should go to point B, so it is clear where we should go,
  • we can define what resources we need, having information about the path between these two points (distance, obstacles, etc.).

Clearly, in such situation, there are many things known and planning is not that difficult. Yet, we do need an idea about the process of change, but it is possible, and we know how to do it.

However, situations in development processes are rarely so simple. Much more often it is not easy to recognize the moment when the change is necessary, it is not easy to justify need for change to stakeholders, it is extremely difficult to define what is to be achieved and consequently how can we do that. Despite all that, we still need planning. Seriously, what is the alternative? Just to go with the flow? It does not seem like a desirable option. So, we do need a plan, which brings us to questions how to plan.

So, let’s say we got positive answer to the first question and established that the planning is needed. That brings us to questions of is it possible and how to do it. And this is when methods come into focus. In area where I work, among most often applied methods in planning, there is methodology for strategic planning of development on local level (MIPRO, UNDP BiH, 2011) and among methods for project management it is Project Cycle Management (PCM), defined as “a set of project design and management tools (based on the Logical Framework Approach)” (European Commission, Project Cycle Management Guidelines, 2004, page 1). Also, “Logical Framework Approach (LFA) is a methodology for planning, managing and evaluating programmes and projects, involving stakeholder analysis, problem analysis, analysis of objectives, analysis of strategies, preparation of the Logframe matrix and Activity and Resource Schedules” (European Commission, Project Cycle Management Guidelines, 2004, page 142). Logframe is obviously important and it should be mentioned that it is “the matrix in which a project’s Intervention Logic, Assumptions, Objectively Verifiable Indicators and Sources of Verification are presented” (European Commission, Project Cycle Management Guidelines, 2004, page 142). Also, these methods for identification and design of development interventions are based on logic of linear processes, with clearly defined cause and effect relations. Such methods can be applied for detailed design of an intervention if we really know cause and effect relations. In such cases, methods work fine, it is possible to make time frame, allocate resources, manage and monitor processes in implementation, and to evaluate the intervention. Such methods also work well in regulated environments, such as projects funded by state, EU or donors, because it is possible to prepare detailed project plan (a.k.a. application for funding) which makes it possible to perform ex ante evaluation and make well based decisions. This is an important aspect and is certainly not to be neglected.

Also, methods like PCM work fine in a number of cases. However, there are also numerous cases where we are struggling with applying such methods. More importantly, even if we find the way to prepare and implement an intervention applying such methods, results may not be what we expected. This just discovers that cause and effect relations have not worked as we have expected. And this happens for so many reasons – there are many factors that are changing while influencing the intervention and each other, we do not have information in the area, etc. Should we give up? No, we should try to find the way. After all, word method comes from Greek word for path, a way, so it is a path from point A to point B. And there are many ways to go from point A to point B, which denies claims that certain method is the only one possible and makes us think more about which method to apply, i.e. which path to take. However, before selecting the method, we should determine are we in the situation where cause and effect is known or not.

Source: Snowden and Boone, 2007

Cynefin framework (graphic above) offers an interesting and useful idea. If the situation we are dealing with is on the right side, PCM will work. If not, we have to establish cause and effect relations first, i.e. we have to discover them. An important characteristic of the cases on the left side is that we do not have information about the events. So, we must explore. It is not easy, having in mind we are talking about social processes. But it is not impossible, either. Several safe to fail probes (Cognitive Edge, Safe-to-Fail Probes. par. 1) will shed light on cause and effect relations, and then we can apply methods like PCM. Even these experiments should be clearly defined, so that we can observe processes and detect key points, interactions and influences. If we want to further improve processes within the project, we may consider applying concepts such as Theory of Constraints, as described in Goldratt’s Critical Chain (Goldratt, 1997).

Also, we can plan in different situations. We should not be too attached to any single method or concept, but rather try to understand what we are dealing with and then define an approach to design and realization of solution. I stopped using services of mechanics that were approaching my car carrying a hammer without even looking at the car. Different problems require different methods and tools. Problem defines tools, not vice versa.

Also, there is a number of critics of every concept or method. A number of them is based on cases where an approach was not properly applied (e.g. logframe was prepared without prior analyses) or on wrong expectations (e.g. where Cynefin was applied as a project management tool). On the other hand, these two concepts can work fine – Cynefin to help us determine if and when we can apply PCM, and PCM to do the rest. This is more shift in thinking than in methods. This is, of course, only one way of understanding and using all above mentioned concepts.

Another, but rather important, aspect is how to get support (and funding) for interventions where you cannot promise precisely defined results (in fact, you could, but there is another word for it). Like in other situations, there are different ways (should I say methods). One is to find source supporting this type of interventions, ones focused on research and development of concepts. Another would be to design interventions where some components may have twofold purpose – to achieve a precisely defined result and to make new findings. E.g. when you organize a training for companies, you could clearly expect that their knowledge about the topic will be better. But you could also continue to observe if they are trying to apply some of concepts presented in the training and how does it go. It requires additional effort, but you will get information that can be used for design of new interventions.

It seems that planning nowadays is similar to Hesse’s Glasperlenspeil, but with practical goals, requiring understanding of many areas, capacity to communicate with various stakeholders and readiness to play with new ideas. And also, to accept reasonable level of risk. Difficult? It certainly is. But it is needed, and, now and then, one may even enjoy it.  

Sources:

Snowden, David J. and Boone, Mary E. (2007). A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2007/11/a-leaders-framework-for-decision-making .

Cognitive Edge. Safe-to-Fail Probes. 11 February 2019. http://cognitive-edge.com/methods/safe-to-fail-probes/

European Commission. (2004). Project Cycle Management Guidelines.

Goldratt, Eliyahu M. (1997). Critical Chain. The North River Press.

United Nations Development Programme BiH. Methodology for Integrated Local Development Planning in Bosnia and Herzegovina (miPRO). http://www.ba.undp.org/content/bosnia_and_herzegovina/en/home/library/poverty/methodology-for-integrated-local-development-planning-in-bosnia-.html.

Do we really know the causes?

Usually, when designing and intervention, we start with analyses of data. We start with data that are available and this is useful, but it has limitations. Data usually tell us about consequences, not about causes. E.g. we can see that quantity of exported furniture is increasing, but we do not see why. On the other hand, in order to design an intervention that will bring desired change, we need to know the causes, because only influence on causes enables us to impact the result, i.e. to achieve desired change. Time is usually limited and, under pressure to act, we may design the interventions that, to some extent, are based on assumptions.

Also, design of development interventions, such as projects and measures, includes assumption that causes are known. On basis of identified cause-effect relations, development practitioners prepare interventions that should lead to desired changes in the society. E.g. if we provide training for the unemployed, companies will employ them and become more competitive. Seems fine. However, there are some, let’s say hidden, additional assumptions, such as, for example, the one that unemployed do want to work, but they do not have an opportunity. Usually, no one checks if this assumption is true, because it looks so obvious. In practice, however, it is not. Consequently, there are organizations offering free training for unemployed that are struggling with finding participants, there are companies seeking for employees and offering initial training, struggling to find candidates, etc. Obviously, not all causes of unemployment, as defined in modern society, are explored. Therefore, interventions can target only one part of employees as the target group – the ones that do satisfy all of the above-mentioned aspects and criteria. Unemployment is just an example, there are numerous similar examples in other areas of economy, and social life in general.

So, we have to get deeper insights, which limited data cannot offer, in order to have clear picture of cause-effect relations before we design an intervention. Sometimes, it takes only to look in more details and from multiple angles, and map of causes and influential factors becomes visible and clear. Observing processes and listening (yes, listening) to stakeholders, even if what they speak is not guided by a questionnaire or interviewer, will say much more about causes than some of existing data. In such cases, it is important not to go to generalizations too soon, i.e. to make conclusions for entire group on basis of insights in behavior of only few members. But insights are extremely valuable. 

However, there are situations where information on cause-effect relations simply do not exist, where we cannot say what effect would an intervention have. In Cynefin framework (http://cognitive-edge.com/videos/cynefin-framework-introduction/) these are seen as complex. In such situations, as the framework suggests, it is needed to undertake steps Probe – Sense – Respond, i.e. it is not possible to immediately design large-scale intervention that will result in precisely defined and desired change. It could, but it would be pure luck. Above mentioned framework offers an approach that is good, because we do not engage massive resources for an intervention that has questionable design, i.e. that lays on assumptions that are used as facts. Just to clarify, not all situations are such and this should not be used as an excuse for being passive. There are many situations where intensive and dedicated research does lead to causes, thus providing basis for design of an intervention that will produce desired change.

Whatever the situation is, it is needed to identify causes in order to design an intervention that will produce desired change.

Instructions – need and speed

We are often in position to apply some kind of instructions and very often it is not easy. That leads to questions – are instructions in particular case really needed, is it more important to launch them faster or to ensure higher level of applicability without difficulties, as well as if and when they should be changed.

Generally, instructions are useful and needed when it is possible to describe a process in detail so that this description can ensure repeating the process with the same results and when it is needed to conduct the same process, i.e. to achieve the same results in a number of cases. That may be good starting point for thinking about the need for instructions. If it is determined that instructions are needed, focus is on preparation of instructions. Instructions should make life of those conducting respective processes easier. However, that is often not the case. Explanation, partially, lays with shortcomings in the instructions themselves. Namely, impression is that often ideas how some things can be done are presented and imposed as instructions. In practice, that leads to a number of problems in application of instructions and also to wasting resources, having in mind that a number of stakeholders are spending time trying to apply instructions that are impossible to implement and to find solutions for flaws in their design, where a number of stakeholders are trying to solve the same problem at the same time, most often without structured communication with each other. What is the reason for this – is it really so important to launch instructions fast? Even if it is, poorly prepared instructions will not lead to desired result, but to waste of time and resources and to creating bad working atmosphere.

One more important aspect is change of instructions. Even if instructions were carefully prepared, it will probably turn out that instructions are not perfect. That is fine, as long as instructions serve the purpose. On the other hand, question that should, but often is not, asked is – is it really needed and justified to change instructions. Namely, change of instructions initiates massive communication to disseminate new, modified instructions, and then requires efforts from all those that have to apply the instructions. In some cases, changes are substantial and really needed. However, in some cases changes obviously do not lead to substantial improvement, but they will nevertheless require efforts in application. Is this effort justified? Is it really so important to add some part of table or to rephrase some sentences that will not lead to real improvement? Probably not. So, when thinking about changing instructions, it should be taken into consideration if this change will produce substantial improvement. If not, it is probably not worth to introduce these changes and additional efforts are not justified.

It would definitely be better to spend more time on design and testing of instructions, before they are presented as completed and ready to use. It will take some more time in preparation, yes, but it will save much more time and resources in application. Also, introduce changes only if really needed, not every time when someone thinks it would be good to change something.

Hermeneutics of Development

Managing development includes defining interventions, i.e. projects and measures that should result in improvement in society, in area of economic and/or social development or environment protection. Preparation of interventions that are expected to produce desired results, requires comprehensive and deep understanding of the area in which the intervention (e.g. a project) will be implemented. Interventions based on such understanding of relevant stakeholders (their capacities and motives), processes and interactions in the society, have a potential to achieve significant change with relatively small resources. Understanding is important, because, to design an intervention that will lead to desired result, it is needed to discover causes. Also, it is not enough to observe consequences and their changes, but it is needed to discover causes and influence them, to direct processes into desired direction. Hence the title hermeneutics of development.

Hermeneutics is „method for interpreting primarily texts, and then entire social, historical and psychological world“ (Blackburn, 1999: 155). Also, it is about systematic way of understanding of phenomena, which is not limited only to understanding texts, but also includes social processes. Development is defined as „the act or process of growing or causing something to grow or become larger or more advanced; the act or process of creating something over a period of time; the state of being created or made more advanced“ (Merriam-Webster, Development, 2015). Development processes can be initiated, guided and observed on different levels, such as state level or level of local community, but also in an industrial sector or an enterprise. Enterprises function within a framework that are to a great extent defined by state level authorities and in conditions that are heavily influenced by local governments and local communities. On the other hand, functioning of enterprises influences local communities in which they function, as well as states in which they are located, by creating value, work places, and also by influencing social development and environment. It is easy to see that there is a number of connections and interrelations, and Gadamer emphasizes that purpose of his researches in regard to hermeneutics is exactly „to find what is common for all ways of understanding and to show that understanding is never subjective behavior towards a given ‘subject’, but that it belongs to the history of actions, which means: in the essence of what is being understood“ (Gadamer, 1978: 13). Phenomena usually do not develop in isolation, but in interaction, while development processes happen simultaneously, overlapping and influencing each other. Clearly, understanding the whole and its parts requires special attention.

For all those involved in development processes, every day brings a new challenge. Ideas how to overcome these challenges sometimes occur immediately, sometimes it takes time. In any case, opinions of persons that have knowledge and experience are valuable. Ideas of creative persons with knowledge and experience are precious, because they often bring not only a solution, but also a breakthrough in the area.

I believe that sharing information, experiences, knowledge and ideas can help development practitioners and theorists on their path. Not only that, sharing ideas as they occur may be beneficial for both, those that share because feedback can help them to develop ideas to the level needed for practical implementation, and those that see these ideas and provide feedback because it may initiate thinking in new direction, enabling different approach to problems they are dealing with. Therefore, I shall share what I am thinking about, working on and struggling with, facts and dilemmas. I hope that this blog will be one of places for sharing knowledge, experiences, information and ideas, and more importantly a place where ideas can emerge and be developed. I hope some things I share will be interesting, maybe even useful to some, and I am looking forward to hearing different opinions on posted materials. I am sure it will be challenging, inspiring, difficult and interesting.

Welcome!

Goran

 

Sources:

·        Blekburn, Sajmon. (1999). Oksfordski filozofski rečnik. Novi Sad: Svetovi.

·        Gadamer, Hans Georg. (1978). Istina i metoda, osnovi filozofske hermeneutike. Sarajevo: IP Veselin Masleša.

·        Merriam-Webster. (2015). Development. Preuzeto 01.02.2016. u 13.57 sa: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/development.